RANDOLPH — Just be happy. Stop feeling that way. It only happens to “those” people.
These are just some of the comments of misconception when it comes to mental illness. They are the sort of comments that can prevent helping those who eventually commit suicide, the second leading cause of death among college students nationwide.
Misconceptions and stigma are something County College of Morris (CCM) is hoping to combat when Send Silence Packing and its powerful images come to the college’s Randolph campus, 214 Center Grove Road, on Thursday, April 30, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with a candlelight vigil to follow.
The event is an award-winning national public exhibit of 1,100 backpacks representing the 1,100 college students who die by suicide every year. It is a program of Active Minds, the leading national nonprofit organization working to engage students in the conversation about mental health. CCM is the first New Jersey community college to host the event.
To give a “face” to the lives lost, personal stories and testimonies written by families and friends accompany the backpacks.
“The impact is immense, as it puts a visual in people’s minds about what 1,100 really means,” says Joanna Leyko, of Landing, a CCM nursing student and the president of the college’s Active Minds chapter. “It means a large number of college students commit suicide each year.
“Our hope is it can change the perception on mental health. If people read the personal stories, they’ll see that it’s not just people who they believe are stereotypical who suffer, but everyone in all walks of life.”
Passersby will be invited to walk among the backpacks and read the stories of those who died. In addition, CCM’s Active Minds will hand out literature on mental health, suicide prevention and where to seek help.
“Send Silence Packing will give people a better understanding about suicide and mental illness,” says Jennie Abat, of Hackettstown, a liberal arts major and the vice president of CCM Active Minds. “Since mental illness is invisible to people who don’t suffer from it, this type of illness does not exist because there is no proof that is visible to justify it.”
The powerful outdoor exhibit sheds light on college student suicide and promotes a healthy dialogue around mental health. Statistics show more than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 have seriously considered attempting suicide.
CCM counselors will be on hand for those who feel they need to talk to someone. Representatives from the New Jersey Self-Help Group Clearinghouse and the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance will also be on campus.
“The misconception that those who suffer mental illness are weak is a dangerous one,” says Shelsey Vazquez, a liberal arts major who leads the public relations for CCM Active Minds. “These are real people who suffer. There are individuals behind it.”
A candlelight vigil will be held at the end of the event, featuring co-founders of Attitudes in Reverse (AIR) Tricia and Kurt Baker as guest speakers. The vigil begins at 7:00 p.m. and will take place in front of the flagpole outside of the Student Community Center, with a rain site in the center’s lobby. The Bakers lost their 19-year-old son, Kenny, to suicide. Experiencing judgement and stigma about their son’s mental illness themselves, they wanted to create an organization to educate others on mental illness.
Send Silence Packing is co-sponsored by the CCM departments of Campus Life, Counseling and Student Success, and Special Events. The event came about after CCM Active Minds applied to the organization’s national chapter to have the event come to the college during its northeastern tour.
“We felt it was important to try to host Send Silence Packing here to bring people’s attention full force on the subject of mental health awareness,” Leyko says.
The club members say they are proud to be making history at New Jersey community colleges, and hope that it will encourage more to host the event and call attention to mental health awareness.